‘Google me’: Curt Cignetti believes he can make the Hoosiers a winner

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A distillation of what's necessary for new Indiana coach Curt Cignetti to reverse the tortured fortunes of Indiana football the past few generations can be found on the bathroom sink in his office.

His toothpaste is a brand called Tom's Of Maine, and its slogan could double as the blueprint to overhaul Indiana football:

Wake up.Brush Teeth.Make Change.

What's the scope of the change Cignetti needs to deliver?

Well, Indiana is a program that has lost more games (713) than any in FBS football, where no coach has left with a winning record since 1947 and the football office wing is named for a coach, Bill Mallory, who left with a losing record.

So what makes Cignetti think he can snicker at history and deliver on the directive he sees on his toothpaste?

What makes him think winning can follow him to Indiana?

"WHY CAN'T IT HAPPEN HERE?" he shouts, practically leaping off the couch in his office.

Cignetti arrives at IU after a 52-9 run at James Madison. Prior to that, he authored immaculate resuscitations of programs at both Elon and Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) that practically required defibrillators.

"In my mind, I'd already done this turnaround twice," Cignetti said of what he's facing at Indiana.

Where does that confidence come from? Well, winning. In his opening news conference, Cignetti summed up his career path and his self-confidence when asked how he sells the program in recruiting: "It's pretty simple. I win. Google me."

Along the way, a simple observation emerged for anyone who has spent even a small amount of time around Cignetti. He carries with him an unending, unflappable and relentless belief in Curt Cignetti. He's most assuredly self-assured.

"His success that he's had as a head football coach," Cignetti's brother, Frank, told ESPN, "obviously breeds self-confidence."

That belief is backed by what he deems a substantial financial investment, something that hasn't always existed at Indiana. That began with a $15.5 million buyout to fire coach Tom Allen. Curt Cignetti said the NIL investment "is at least triple" what it had been.

There's also an overhauled roster of 38 new players -- 22 transfers and 16 freshmen. And an adrenaline shot of confidence, including Cignetti's declaration that Purdue, Michigan and Ohio State "suck" after he was introduced at Assembly Hall.

There's also a 2024 schedule that could be amenable to a hot start, as IU will be favored in three of its first four games, with a road trip to UCLA the only projected underdog game. (IU hosts Maryland in its fifth game.)

Cignetti's father, Frank Cignetti Sr., is in the College Football Hall of Fame, and his brother, Frank, is a longtime NFL and college coordinator. He combines that background with experience working for Nick Saban and under other notable coaches like Johnny Majors (Pitt), Walt Harris (Pitt) and Chuck Amato (NC State).

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As a head coach for 13 seasons, Cignetti has never had a losing record. He flipped 2-9 Elon to 8-4 in his first season in 2017. He took over a 6-5 IUP team in 2011 and, two years later, had it at 12-2 and in the Division II postseason.

So while the world sees Indiana's coaching history the past, say, 80 years as a coaching graveyard, Cignetti sees it much different. His unshakeable belief in an inevitable Indiana turnaround is rooted in untapped potential.

After all, he already has done this turnaround twice. Any other idea he, well, brushes off as he keeps waking up to make change.

Here's a Q&A with Cignetti from his office recently, edited lightly for brevity and clarity.

ESPN: What should people expect from Indiana in Year 1?

Cignetti: We're going to be better. We're going to win. Yeah, we're going to win. We're going to change the way people think. Changing the way the players think is an easy thing. To change the way certain people think at the university or in the state or in the conference or nationally about Indiana, we have to produce on the field. But we've got the schedule. It's highly competitive, but it lines up very nicely. So, we'll see where we are at the end of spring. What pieces we need to add in the portal at the end of spring.

ESPN: Why can it happen here?

Cignetti: Why can't it happen here? It's a state school. I mean we have 48,000 students. We have the second-most alumni in the country. I mean, we're pulling a big check from the Big Ten. Why can't it happen? Unless there's not a commitment and you don't want it to happen. Right?

ESPN: Have they made "Google Me" T-shirts yet?

Cignetti: No. But Mark Cuban recommended it. We'll do something pretty neat with that, so we're still working on it.

ESPN: Have any recruits or portal kids come in and said, "Coach, I googled you."

Cignetti: I get that occasionally.

ESPN: You're a self-assured guy. Is that from coaching at lower levels and winning? Or being around a coaching family? Also, do you need to be a little bold to take this job on?

Cignetti: Yeah. And you've got to portray that confidence to a place like this, because this place needs that right now. They need hope and belief. But it's like a player or a pro ball player that produces and produces and produces, over a number of seasons. Why should he not be confident? I'm the leader, right? Everybody's going to follow my lead, and I mean, I know what I'm doing, and I know that we can be successful with the commitment. And we will be.

ESPN: What's the response been to the confidence you've projected?

Cignetti: What I hear is they haven't seen this fan base ever this excited about football. Season tickets are up 50% [compared with this time last year].

ESPN: Do you feel the resources at Indiana will allow you to be competitive in the Big Ten?

Cignetti: There should be no self-imposed limitations on what we can accomplish. OK? We don't want to be in the upper half of the Big Ten in anything. We want to be the best. Our NIL is growing. Let's not be comfortable with having the seventh-best NIL in the Big Ten.

ESPN: Important question for any Indiana coach ... have you met John Mellencamp yet?

Cignetti: I did, actually. We had an event with about 34 donors, with $100,000 get in for NIL. He came and played three or four songs. It was awesome. Mark Cuban was there. So was his business partner, Todd Wagner. It was a great affair.

ESPN: What did Mellencamp play?

Cignetti: He played three or four songs, including Jack & Diane, Pink Houses and Small Town.

ESPN: The key pivot of your career is when you left an assistant job under Nick Saban at Alabama to be the head coach at Division II IUP, where your dad had been the coach.

Cignetti: I promise you, that was an unprecedented move.

ESPN: You told me you took a pay cut of nearly two-thirds, from about $300,000 (with bowl bonuses) to about $120,000 to be the IUP head coach at the end of the 2010 season. Why?

Cignetti: I didn't want to finish as a career assistant. I felt like that's the way it was heading. I had been the next guy on the coordinator list when at Alabama, NC State and Pitt. And I took a chance, I bet on myself. There were many mornings I woke up, once I took that job, saying, "What did I do to my family?" Now it was my wife's hometown, she's from a family of 10. She's No. 9. So there were some siblings there ... but I didn't go there saying, "I got to get out of here." I went there to try to make it better. Just worked every day to make it better.

ESPN: Walk me through the move to Elon in 2017.

Cignetti: Well, when I was an assistant at NC State, I recruited there. I actually talked to Elon once or twice when I was at State, and there was nothing there. I'm on the plane down thinking, "Why am I going here?" And then touched down. Well, they had built all this stuff and had 7,000 students and it looked like a palace [with the facilities]. It was three times more money -- and so we did it. They were awful. I mean, they were like 12-45 [in the prior five years] before I got there. We came out and played Toledo, and I'm six years under my belt by then. I know what I'm doing. We play hard at Toledo and then win eight in a row [all one-score games] and played No. 1 JMU for the conference championship. And the next year, we won at JMU in game No. 6 [to snap a 20-game CAA win streak].

ESPN: That's a good audition for the JMU job.

Cignetti: When Mike Houston [left for East Carolina], my wife and I were at dinner and I said, "We're going to end up there." I had actually interviewed there when Everett Withers got the job and got to know Jeff Bourne, the athletic director, in the league meetings.

ESPN: There's been a surge of successful coaches at the FBS level who have small-school backgrounds -- Kalen DeBoer, Willie Fritz, Lance Leipold and Brian Kelly all came up that path. Why do you think that is?

Cignetti: You learn humility. I mean, we'd make the playoffs [at IUP] and Thanksgiving week, the university shut down, so nobody's working maintenance. You go in before the staff meeting, you're emptying the garbage, waxing the staff table. One year, we went to the playoffs, we're in the second or third round, and the university was doing something with the internet that was planned long ago. We didn't have access to [some film] until Tuesday. But you know what? More than anything, you learned how to be a head coach and you make your mistakes, Year 1 and 2, but you don't have to pay as much for them.

ESPN: Your father, Frank Sr., is in the College Football Hall of Fame. He worked for Bobby Bowden at West Virginia, worked as the head coach there and led IUP to a pair of Division II championship games. Walk me through a football life of growing up in a coaching family.

Cignetti: We went to Morgantown in 1970. Bobby Bowden was the head coach. My father went first as a receiver coach and the next year, he was a coordinator. I was in fourth grade, actually, in the 1970 season. But I was on the sideline every game and in the locker room at halftime a lot of the games. I was the older child, so I knew I wanted to coach right then. And listening to Coach Bowden in the locker room at halftime, and I still remember being at Maryland in 1973, he was all wound up down there in the visitors locker room. And the 1975 win of West Virginia beating Johnny Majors and Pitt in the last seconds, that was the ultimate West Virginia experience.

ESPN: Did you have a choice to do anything other than coach?

Cignetti: I didn't want to do anything else. My dad sort of half-heartedly tried to dissuade me, and I actually did a business internship my senior year of college during the summer at West Virginia. But there was no way, man. I wanted to coach.

ESPN: So you're at JMU. And IU opens. What did you think?

Cignetti: JMU is great. It's a great job, I liked living there. I liked the people. I really liked Jeff Bourne, the athletic director. He was retiring. We had moved up to the Sun Belt. We had won it both years but couldn't play in the championship game and a bowl game and this and that. I had a really good team coming back. I thought we could be that G5 team in the 12-team playoff. But Indiana was a place that I'd been a couple of times and thought it was really a nice place, nice campus. And that Big Ten TV contract really kind of caught my attention about 14, 15 months ago, which kind of put them above the SEC. I mean, it's a state school. In my mind, I'd already done this turnaround twice.

ESPN: Simply put, no one has won big here in nearly a century. How did Scott Dolson and the administration tell you it was going to be different?

Cignetti: I think I sensed the commitment here that, obviously, college athletics has changed a lot. Football has changed a lot. Football's driving the bus across the country in terms of athletic revenue. And Scott has not been here that long as the AD, but he's been here 33 years and had a really good feel for Indiana. He came up as a ball boy under Bobby Knight. He and I really hit it off. I really got a sense from the president, Pamela Whitten, who had been at Georgia for five years and at Michigan State 15, that football was really important. Institutionally, the football budget and the commitment would be there. I knew there would be an NIL commitment, at least triple what it had been. As it turns out, it's been more than that. I felt like there was a commitment to get it done. And I felt extremely confident with a commitment that we would be successful. And I think in December, we made tremendous progress here. You can't really measure, it's not tangible or quantifiable because we haven't played a game. But we completely flipped the roster in December.

ESPN: How did you do it?

Cignetti: By Day 3, we were in a crisis mode rosterwise. We had 10 offensive starters in the portal, with some defensive guys. Now, the one thing about the portal is you can turn that team around a little quicker. You may have 25 guys in the portal. Well, 15 of them, you might be glad they're in the portal. Right? So we kept about half the guys we wanted to keep, and then we were able to acquire the JMU crew. I did not expect that, but I guess that's the way of the world in 2023, when a coach leaves, guys go in the portal, I did not expect all those guys to go in the portal like they did. And we ended up taking 10 of them. In total, we have 23 people from JMU here, if you count the coaching staff.

ESPN: How does having 23 folks familiar with what you are doing help you set the culture?

Cignetti: When you've had three straight bad seasons like Indiana had, and then after I sat down and talked to a couple of the players and heard some things that I hadn't heard in a long time, it was very evident to me that I couldn't bring enough new faces in. To be able to bring 10 JMU guys from the championship culture, but also 12 to 13 other transfers that are two-, three-year starters at winning programs that all have productive numbers, all-conference honors. I mean, you've completely flipped and changed the roster in a month now.

ESPN: What was that process like?

Cignetti: I mean, I did not see this town in daylight. The day I got here for the press conference [on Dec. 1], I saw it in the daylight and then the day I left for Christmas. People would say, "What did you think of Bloomington?" I said, "I don't know." I was in the office one night until 12:30 a.m. I haven't done that until since 1986. So, it's encouraging progress we made.

ESPN: What should we expect from Kurtis Rourke? He was the MAC Player of the Year in 2022 and has battled some injuries.

Cignetti: He played at about 215 in 2022, and he couldn't train leading into 2023, so he played at about 235. And we've got him back down now, and he's in great shape. So, I'm anxious. We start spring ball here in a couple of weeks. I'm anxious to see what he does. Everything will be earned, not given, but he's a three-year starter. He's won a lot of games, thrown for a lot of yards and touchdown passes. He knows how to play the game of football.

ESPN: Tyler Cherry was a top-20 quarterback in ESPN's rankings. He obviously flipped over from Duke after Mike Elko left. What's flashed there so far?

Cignetti: People believe he has special qualities. He was a very highly rated guy. He's one of the highest recruits Indiana has gotten in a long long time here, from in state. I was at NC State when Philip Rivers won that a job as a freshman. We had a great year. The first year at Elon, we had a freshman [pop in] spring ball. That same deal. We had a great year. So this is an open competition, as we've got Tayven Jackson here as well.


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